Long ago, back in elementary school, we were all taught red, yellow and blue were the primary colors. From there you could make secondary colors and pretty much every other color you could want. Except white and technically black (but as everyone knows you can make a color close enough if you mix enough colors).
Also in elementary school we learned about adding and subtracting, two things that many artists have nightmares about. When you put the two together you get something a little confusing and a lot important: additive and subtractive color methods.
WARNING: This is not a comprehensive examination of color theory, but an overview to help those who thought there was only one way of mixing colors. Color theory is based upon wavelengths and a spectrum. How we perceive colors depends on our retinas and our brain.
ANOTHER WARNING: The names of the different methods are somewhat confusing. I have them typically reversed in my mind.
Subtractive Color Method: Ending in Black
I’m going to start with the subtractive color method because this is what most people, including artists (except those using computers) are most familiar with. Painters and printers are very familiar with this method, where in theory an artist starts with white and adds colors until the get the desired result, or black. So, subtractive color method starts with white light and colors are present to absorb and subtract wavelengths to give the object or paint a certain appearance.
When it comes to painting many artists still start with red, yellow and blue as the primary colors; however, printers start with what we call CMYK. Cyan, magenta, yellow and black are used when using layers typical to a printing process. Yes, black is represented by the letter K to help avoid confusion with blue.
Additive Color Method: Ending in White
Additive color method is extremely important to anyone dealing with computer screens and other monitors. An artist starts with black and adds colors until white is revealed.
When using the additive color method we start with red, green and blue. If one of these is combined with another primary at the same light intensity you will get cyan, yellow and magenta. When all three are mixed the result is white. Varying the light will cause variations on different color combinations.
The difference is very important when creating works with today’s technology. An artist can save themselves a whole lot of trouble if they know what colors combine to make other colors and how the particular method they are using functions.
Fun Color Facts
- Sir Isaac Newton not only discovered gravity, but also discovered how light takes on different properties based upon wavelengths.
- Many artists choose not to use black paint from a tube, but instead mix their own “black” from French Ultramarine (dark blue) and Burnt Umber. This allows “black” to take on cool or warm tones and not “kill the light”.
- There is a lot of psychology behind color selections. Reds and yellows are thought to stimulate appetite (think McDonald’s) and pink is thought to calm people and lower pulses.
- According to Simple English Wikipedia people are not considering red, yellow and blue as primary colors.